First Man

      Comments Off on First Man

First Man, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to La La Land (2016), is diametrically opposed to both the musical genre and fantastique escapism in general. First Man (2018) is a film about work more than anything else and it locates its characters’ internal lives in their work rather than in explosive musical numbers or colorful set pieces. The work that goes on in the film isn’t only limited to the work of landing Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) on the moon, but opens up to all sorts of emotional labors as well; from marital problems between Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) to issues of grief and mourning. This emphasis on work grounds First Man, viscerally, within an illusion much closer to our reality than La La Land. But that isn’t to say that Chazelle doesn’t employ the same style of elaborate camera moves and choreography as he did in La La Land.

The work the characters do in First Man is never boring despite the fact that it makes up a majority of the films runtime (in part this is due to Chazelle’s visual sensibilities). The physical working towards the lunar landing represents, in almost every scene, the working through an equally complex and vital emotional trauma (death of a child, death of a friend, etc). The same could be said about Janet’s work at the Armstrong home. For instance, every game Janet plays with her sons is an instant not spent wondering if her husband will come home or some other frequent, local anxiety. So this “working” is not restrictive, but rather totally inclusive, breaking down the gendered stereotypes propagated by other astronaut adventure films like Apollo 13 (1995), The Right Stuff (1983) or Armageddon (1998) where the women sit at home doing little else but crying intermittently while their husbands play cowboys in orbit. The prioritizing of both Janet and Neil’s work is what really sets First Man apart from other films about space exploration or even other films about marriage made in Hollywood.

Armstrong’s work is more compelling to watch than Janet’s largely due to the fact that his labors are carried out in the exotic spaces of rocket ships and moon buggies. The exotic nature of these spaces and the tools which accompany them could have enabled Chazelle to expedite his narrative with the kind of technical generalizing as short-hand one finds on Star Trek. Instead, Chazelle shows his audience every knob, gauge, etc. on the rocket’s console and takes the time needed to show us what it means for Armstrong to pilot his vessel. The attention to specific and authentic detail in these sequences place these scenes in the tradition of Terrence Malick, Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick; a tradition that supposes that, within frame, environment is as much a character as the people occupying that environment.

Though the bulk of First Man is relatively grounded in our own pedestrian experience of “work” the film is not without its moment of transcendence. Not the transcendence of narrative one associates with a filmmaker like Christopher Nolan, but a transcendence of emotion. This moment comes in the form of emotional closure on the moon’s surface where Chazelle’s choices of blocking and angles vary so differently from any other dramatization of walking on the moon that the environment seems to be born out of Armstrong’s subconscious. As Armstrong deposits his token of his deceased daughter in a lunar crater the primary character arc is resolved in a series of images that are both concrete within that character’s reality and evocative of the kind of fantasy that lived in the heart of La La Land. It would be easy to draw a parallel between this scene and any number of scenes in Andrei Tarkovsky’s work if it weren’t for Chazelle’s insistence that this moment remain anomalous, cutting back into the rhythms of work and routine almost immediately after.